Overlooked Tar Heels crash Sweet 16

UNC and first-year coach Hubert Davis have already knocked out one top seed and face UCLA on Friday 
in Philadelphia

Brady Manek and the Tar Heels have carried their momentum from a win over Duke into the postseason, reaching the Sweet 16 in coach Hubert Davis' first season. (Tony Gutierrez / AP Photo)

North Carolina was scheduled to play UCLA as part of the CBS Sports Classic in Las Vegas on Dec. 18, but the game was called off due to an extraordinary set of circumstances.

The Tar Heels ended up playing Kentucky in a hastily rescheduled matchup, losing 98-69 in one of several early low points of Hubert Davis’ first season as coach.

Friday night in Philadelphia, thanks to a different set of extraordinary circumstances, UNC and the Bruins will finally get to have their showdown.

It was the Tar Heels’ roller coaster of an upset of top-seeded Baylor, rather than a COVID outbreak, to get the teams onto the same basketball court at the same time. And because of the stakes involved as part of the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16, the game is already a high point for Davis and his surging team.

Regardless of the outcome.

“The thing that brings me such great joy is the thing I desperately wanted for all of these guys the entire season, for them to have their own stories and testimonies and memories of playing in big-time games and coming up big in that Carolina uniform,” Davis said after Saturday’s 93-86 overtime victory that dethroned the defending national champion Bears in Fort Worth, Texas.

“To see their smiles and how happy they are, and the enjoyment that they’re having being together brings me great joy as a coach.”

Saturday’s upset of Baylor marked the third time UNC has beaten a No. 1 seed in the second round.

Davis was a player on the team the first time it happened, against Oklahoma in 1990. A year earlier, he was also in uniform the last time the Tar Heels played UCLA in an NCAA Tournament, a game UNC won.

The Tar Heels (26-9) will have their hands full against this group of Bruins, who return every player that saw action in their run to the Final Four a year ago. UCLA (27-7) advanced with wins against Akron and St. Mary’s and is led by the foursome of wing Johnny Juzang (15.7 points per game), forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. (14.0 points, 5.7 rebounds), guard Jules Bernard (12.7 points) and point guard Tyger Campbell (11.8 points, 135 assists/41 turnovers).

While it’s no surprise the Bruins are still playing, UNC wasn’t even sure it would make the NCAA field after a home loss to lowly Pittsburgh on Feb. 16. But it quickly regrouped to win the final five regular season games, including a defeat of rival Duke in coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Despite going out in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament with a loss to Virginia Tech and receiving a less-than-favorable No. 8 seed in the NCAA’s East Region, the Tar Heels quickly regained their momentum by blowing out Marquette before overcoming a mountain of adversity to beat Baylor.

As much of a reality check as that loss to Pittsburgh was for the Tar Heels, Davis and his players credit a defeat a few weeks earlier at Wake Forest as the springboard that catapulted them from the bubble to the Sweet 16.

“After the Wake Forest game, we were all thinking we were going to get chewed out, but (Davis) came in super positive, saying we could accomplish all our goals. I feel like that was a turning point in our season, seeing how positive he was,” senior forward Leaky Black said.

“We still had a lot of games left, so he didn’t want us to get too down on ourselves,” added sophomore guard RJ Davis, who followed a career-high 12-assist performance against Marquette with a career-high 30 points in the Baylor game. “It was just more about locking in and focusing on what we had to accomplish, not what everyone else was saying about us.”

It’s a mindset that served the Tar Heels well against the Bears.

UNC was cruising with a 67-42 lead with 10:08 remaining when forward Brady Manek — who had already scored 26 points — was ejected for hitting Baylor’s Jeremy Sochan with a wayward elbow. Four minutes later, point guard Caleb Love fouled out during a closing run that saw Baylor erase the entire 25-point deficit and send the game into overtime.

Instead of folding, as virtually everyone expected, the Tar Heels continued to battle in the extra period, getting meaningful contributions from reserves Dontrez Styles and Justin McKoy to pull out a 93-86 victory.

“I always say that you will always get an opportunity with me,” Hubert Davis said. “I can’t guarantee when, where, how and the manner in which it will come. The only thing that you are required to do is, when that opportunity comes, to be ready. Justin and Dontrez were ready. In a big-time moment, big-time situation, they stepped up.”

And because they did, the Tar Heels will get another big-time moment and big-time situation. In a matchup they’ve been waiting since December to play.